The 1990s were a generally outstanding decade for movies and recent resurgences of franchise favorites, many of which are on this list, have demonstrated just how beloved its successes could be.
Are there better movies from the 1990s? Absolutely, yes. However, these are the movies that seem to transport their viewers backward through time to their original decade better than any others.
The so-called Disney renaissance movies, for example, do not feature on this list (just to rip that Band-Aid off real quick) because, aside from being near-impossible to choose between, they each possess a predominantly timeless quality due to the strength and style of their animation. If you’re looking to take a trip down memory lane or understand more about a time that you missed out on, these are the places to start.
10 The Mask (1994)
1994 was a very good year for Jim Carrey. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective made money at the beginning of the year, while Dumber and Dumber made even more at the end. But it was his summer hit, The Mask, that earned the most and sold Carrey as a leading man.
The Mask is often lamented as a toned-down compromise from its comic book origins but it was actually director Chuck Russell, well known for his gory horror movies, who took credit for steering the movie towards the romantic comedy genre. Russell instead focussed his penchant for grotesque VFX into a live-action/animated hybrid of Looney Tunes comedy that almost certainly had an impact on another movie on this list.
9 Hocus Pocus (1993)
Out of the mountain of highly memorable movies that Disney released during the 90s, what was it that made this relatively small Halloween comedy one of the most devoutly loved cult classics of the decade? It's unusually macabre for anything so closely associated with Disney, even featuring a small child literally having the life sucked out of them in the opening scene.
That, and an even more uncommon degree of sexuality, made Hocus Pocus almost taboo for a company famed for reliably tame live-action family movies and it no doubt contributed to its initial critical and box office failure. Its rediscovery on TV and home video making its memory seem all the more personal.
8 Speed (1994)
Speed or, as Homer Simpson once called it, “The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down” was a defining moment for high concept action movies in the 90s. It evoked the qualities of the great franchises of the genre at that time, like Terminator and Die Hard, but, unlike those movies, Speed was very much a 90s thing. Its nautically themed sequel capsizing three years later and alienating the immense fanbase of the original, sealing its legacy in that decade.
It’s in the spirit and memory of the 1990s that Speed works best, though. Acting as an exemplar of the tone and scale that action movies of the decade would shoot for.
7 Matilda (1996)
Danny DeVito’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book is the most magical movie a kid could watch about serious child abuse before Harry Potter was a thing. Quirky and endearing, it was a significantly more accessible version of Tim Burton’s view of the bizarre ugliness at the heart of supposedly-normal middle-class life.
Difficult to pin down to a genre, it has plenty of supernatural and fantastical elements but no real grand adventure at the center of it. A perfect example of the mid-budget, low-stakes, kids movies that are all but extinct now. Its conflicts being derived more from simple emotional needs like the desire to be nurtured and encouraged.
6 The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Often thought of as the first viral movie, The Blair Witch Project catapulted Hollywood into the 21st century in a number of ways. Its use of the internet, when the internet was still being weighed up as a potentially passing fad, and, of course, its popularizing of the found footage style made it as much a cultural landmark as it did a cinematic experience.
An often under-discussed reason for The Blair Witch Project’s overall impact is the way that it was shot. Its combination of 16mm film and 8mm videocassette cameras, left entirely in the hands of its actors, made it an experience that had not only never been seen before but would never really be seen again, with the approaching advent of cheaper digital equipment in the early 2000s.
5 Independence Day (1996)
There was no more meteoric a rise to movie stardom in the 1990s than Will Smith’s. From a steady stream of supporting roles in the early part of the decade, he had become one of the world’s biggest action stars by the middle.
Independence Day wasn’t his debut as a leading hero but it was the moment that cemented him as a star beyond The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which ended less than two months before Independence Day’s earth-shattering run at the box office.
Like a considerably more dated Jurassic Park, Independence Day also holds a unique spot in 90s movie history for being the purest example of the distinct style cultivated by director Roland Emmerich and producing partner Dean Devlin. It would go on to be extensively parodied in popular culture and it still holds a special place in people’s hearts for its flamboyant theatricality.
4 The Matrix (1999)
The 90s were home to a number of odd, unique and innovative science-fiction movies that sought to push the boundaries of available technology and their audience’s imagination. None was more successful than the Wachowskis’ original Matrix movie.
Its combination of technophobia, technophilia, anti-authoritarianism, cyberpunk chic and anime slickness made it an exploration of modern thinking from back before the problems of a digital existence seemed like an unavoidable aspect of everyday life. It was Star Wars for the dial-up generation. Its plethora of outmoded technology maybe seeming quaint by contemporary standards but its philosophical implications and choreography lose none of their punch.
3 Space Jam (1996)
Is there anything more 90s than a movie adapted from a Superbowl commercial designed to sell shoes? The answer is not much. The end result of the collaboration between basketball icon Michael Jordan and ad director Joe Pytka was a feature-length expansion of their 1992 commercial for Air Jordans that grew from a relative box office success to a cultural phenomenon.
Beyond that uniquely self-reflexive, borderline cynical, approach to commercialism that was so prevalent in the mid-90s, Space Jam is remembered for actually being surprisingly well-made. It stands up today as an all-encompassing example of what 90s animation was generally about, stylistically and technologically.
2 Home Alone (1990)
90s popular culture got off to a blazing start with Chris Columbus’ perennial holiday favorite. Home Alone was certainly no fluke, it remains one of the most significant entries into both the pantheon of Christmas movies and general pop culture regarding Christmas for a number of strong reasons.
Star Macaulay Culkin was, and still is, a huge point of nostalgia concerning the movie and the following decade. (His 90s nostalgia heyday reaching a head with The Pagemaster and Richie Rich in 1994.) But it was composer John Williams who earned Home Alone both of its Oscar nominations, for the score and the aptly-titled original song “Somewhere in My Memory”. Neither won but they became indelibly imprinted onto the very soul of any child or adult who heard them.
1 Jumanji (1995)
If you want to talk about memorable Robin Williams performances in the 1990s then you really are spoiled for choice. There will no doubt be many readers who will be positively steaming that Mrs. Doubtfire hasn’t been brought up yet, to say nothing of Steven Spielberg’s captivatingly creative critical misfire Hook. There truthfully are too many to mention.
Joe Johnston’s bizarre adventure – about a board game that tries to kill you – perfectly exemplifies Williams’ appeal as an actor in kids movies of that time as well as what generally appealed about movies made for kids in that time. From James Horner’s whimsical, epic, score to the point where the movie just turns into Home Alone for five minutes at the end.